Since the inception of automobile racing, it has been a male-dominated sport. When you think of NASCAR, drag racing, or Indycar, you generally don’t think of the few women who have succeeded in breaking down gender boundaries and finding their place in the sport. Several women have made their mark in various elements of motor racing, despite the fact that it is still largely dominated by males. In recognition of National Women’s Month, we’re looking at the female race car drivers that have had the most influence on achieving gender equality in the sport.
Sara Christian was the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race in 1949 when the sport was still dominated by men. Her seven-race career ended with sixth place at Langhorne Speedway and fifth place at Heidelberg Raceway. Despite her brief career, she was the first female driver in NASCAR, breaking gender barriers and opening the way for many other female drivers to follow in her footsteps.
In the early 1970s, Janet Guthrie broke gender barriers in NASCAR racing, becoming the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race in the 1976 World 600. She finished 15th in that race, a few spots ahead of legendary champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Guthrie ran in the Daytona 500 the following year and was voted ‘Rookie of the Year’ for her twelfth-place result.
Guthrie also raced in Indycars, finishing eighth in the 1978 Indy 500 after trying the race unsuccessfully in 1976 and 1977. Many detractors who believed women didn’t belong in the sport were silenced by her ninth-place performance. Guthrie was one of only two women to compete in both NASCAR and Indycar recognized events, along with Danica Patrick.
Danica Patrick, the most successful female racing car driver in NASCAR and Indycar history, is probably the most famous female race car driver. Patrick is a role model for many young females who aspire to be racers.
Patrick’s spotlighted career began in 2005 when she led 19 laps of the Indy 500 on her way to a fourth-place finish. She made the switch to a full-time NASCAR career in 2012. She became the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole in 2013. Along with Janet Guthrie, she is one of only two women to have raced in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
Shirley Muldowney dubbed the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” is regarded as one of the greatest female drivers in history. She fell in love with racing as a teenager and won the IHRA Southern Nationals in 1971. She won the World Championship in 1977, 1980, and 1982, all within a few years.
Muldowney was the first woman to win a championship in any NHRA drag racing class, and she was regarded as royalty in the drag racing world. Her pioneering efforts have gained her the admiration of both male and female racing fans alike. Most importantly, her success cleared the path for female drag racers to be respected and acknowledged in a discipline that had long been seen as a man’s sport.